Survivor's poetic memoir of Stalin's worst camp; Kolyma Tales, by Varlam Shalamov. Translated from the Russian and with a foreword by John Glad. New York: W. W. Norton. $9.95.
"Kolyma, Kolyma, faraway planet/ Twelve months winter, the rest summer." This verse was sung by the forced laborers of Stalin's concentration camps in the northeastern Siberian gold fields where, according to Robert Conquest, 2 to 3 million prisoners perished in temperatures reaching minus 70 degrees C. As Conquest wrote in "The Great Terror." "No cap area had quite the reputation of Kolyma for isolation, cold and death."
Varlam Shalamov is a survivor of Kolyma. Thirty years old in 1937, he was arrested by the secret police during one of the vast political purges of that period for the "crime" of having praised Ivan Bunin, the emigre Russian writer who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature a few years earlier. Shalamov spent almost 17 years in the caps and later described his experiences in 60 short stories that circulated unofficially inside the Soviet Union in samizdatm manuscripts during the last two decades and were published in the West in Russian emigre magazines.
In "The Gulag Archipelago" Alexander Solzhinitsyn wrote that when he began his work he knew of no memoirs dealing with the camps.Then he became avquainted with the Kolyma stories and asked Shalamov to collaborate with him, but Shalamov was too old and sick to accept. "Shalamov's experience in the camps was longer and more bitter than my own," said Solzhenitsyn, "and I respectfully confess that to him and not me was it given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life in the camps dragged us all."
Prof. John Glad has made a valuable contribution to our appreciation of an important contemporary Russian writer by making available a representative selection of Shalamov's stories for the first time in English translation, carefully preserving the understated Chekhovian style of the original. These two dozen tales depict the dehumanization of man as witnessed by a victim who possessed the determination to remember and the talent to communicate.
For example, "In the Night" portrays Glebov, a former doctor, stealing underwear from a frozen corpse to trade for bread or some tobacco. In "Dry Rations" Shalamov writes: "We had no pride, vanity, or ambition, and jealousy and passion seemed as alien to us as Mars, and trivial in addition. It was much more important to learn to button your pants in the frost. Grown men cried if they weren't able to do that. We understood that death was no worse than life, and we feared neither. We were overwhelmed by indifference."
In "Lend-Lease," an American bulldozer arrives with a barrel of machine grease, and the starving convicts break open the barrel. "In the hunger, they claimed the machine grease was butter sent by Lend-Lease and there remained less than half a barrel by the time a sentry was sent to guard it, and the camp administration drove off the crowd of starving, exhausted men with rifle shots . . . for this was food for machines -- creatures infinitely more important to the state than people."
Perhaps the most significant story in the collection is "The Used-Book Dealer ," in which Shalamov reveals the state's experimentation with chemical will suppressants and its abuse of psychiatry as early as the infamous show trials of the late 1930s.
In 1972, Shalamov wrote a letter to Literaturnaya Gazeta, the influential Moscow newspaper, repudiating his tales of Kolyma as "no longer topical." Such recantations are frequent among harassed Soviet writers, but they pique the curiosity of many Russian readers who cannot obtain the truth from censored publications. It is hoped that someday Russians will have free access to these books of artistic and historical merit, which broaden our perspective of Soviet reality.